Home > Ethics, libertarianism, Political Philosophy, Summaries > Nozick on Locke’s Theory of Acquisition, the Lockean Proviso, and Collective Assets (Part 3)

Nozick on Locke’s Theory of Acquisition, the Lockean Proviso, and Collective Assets (Part 3)

April 30th, 2009


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Nozick cites Rawls’ counterargument that he avoids this dilemma, “because people in [Rawls’] original position rank the principle of liberty as lexicographically prior to the difference principle, applied not only to economic well-being but to health, length of life, and so on. ” One of Nozick’s footnotes calls our attention to the discussion of collective assets later to further this objection.

Continuing, Nozick professes his inability to find a cogent argument to help support that variations in holdings caused by variations in natural assets ought to be eliminated or minimized. He connects the idea of the “moral arbitrariness” of natural assets to Rawls’ construction of the original position by pointing out that there must be an argument to “shape” the original position to exclude natural assets from the participants’ knowledge (i. e. there must be a justification for the veil of ignorance). Nozick argues that if a particular feature being arbitrary from a moral point of view is sufficient to fall under the veil of ignorance, then those behind the veil of ignorance should know nothing about themselves, because each of their features (like rationality, the ability to make choices, having a life span of more than three days, having a memory, ability to communicate) will be based on morally arbitrary facts (that the sperm and ovum that made them were genetically composed in a particular manner). However, Rawls’ construction of the original position has persons know some of these things.

At this point, Nozick stops to qualify his argument. He calls our attention to an ambiguity in the statement that “a fact is arbitrary from a moral point of view”: in one sense, it could mean that there is no moral reason why a fact ought to be; in another, it could mean that a fact is of no moral significance and has no moral consequences. Nozick states that rationality is not morally arbitrary in the second sense. Nonetheless, if rationality escapes exclusion for this reason, it now has a “partner in guilt”—natural assets—which must also escape exclusion for that reason. Thus, an entitlement theory similar to Rawls’ that holds that entitlements arise from or are at least dependent on such facts is called into question.

“Collective Assets”

Later in the book, Nozick aims to tackle Rawls’ seeming notion of “collective assets,” specifically referring to the idea that “everyone has some entitlement or claim on the totality of natural assets (viewed as a pool), with no one having differential claims. ” He argues that a theory separating men from their talents, assets, abilities, and so on can only be adequate if one “presses very hard on the distinction between men [and those things],” noting that whether any conception of a coherent person remains when this distinction is made is an open question. Further, he states that talents and abilities are an asset to a free community, and are not part of a constant sum game, then asking whether extraction of more benefit is what justifies treating natural assets as a collective resources, leaving open the question of what justifies the extraction.

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